Photo Credit: Courtesy Nati Burnside

More than a year after the Covid pandemic broke out, the kosher food industry is feeling its impact. Many kosher certification agencies are finding it difficult to travel to food processing plants to make sure their certifications are being kept up to standards, and a lack of professional personnel compounds the problem. Overseas, company executives are choosing to opt for the kosher certification but not advertise the label on their food, fearing backlash from anti-Semitic groups who will avoid buying their products.

Other challenges facing the kashrut supervising agencies includes whether or not to certify a product called Impossible Pork or recreational marijuana/cannabis.

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“We’re monitoring things the best way we can,” said Rabbi Elie Schoemann, director of licensing for the London KLBD (Kosher London Bais Din). “Things are easing up now and factory visits in the majority of regions are almost back to regular frequency. During the difficult periods, KLBD and other agencies, from what we’ve been told, were doing virtual visits to those factories which are periodically visited and don’t need close monitoring or batch supervision.”

Rabbi Zvi Holland, community education and development project coordinator with the Star-K offered explained how kashrut supervisors are managing to get around.

“You always need to know where you can get a PCR test, have enough masks, and if you’re really good and you go back to America, you carry with you an FDA-approved antigen tests that you can take in 15 minutes. You do a video call and you can get an approved COVID result to get back into the country.”

Admittedly, the Baltimore-based kashrut certification firm has had its share of issues.

“There have been a lot of challenges in the last year,” Avrom Pollak, president of Star-K Kosher Certification, told The Jewish Press. “Being able to visit our plants and getting people to where they have to be. We’ve had to really jump through some hoops in order to accomplish that. But thank G-d, we’ve been able to continue providing the kosher consumer with many certified products.”

The Orthodox Union has had two main challenges facing their clients, according to Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher. “One is getting workers. The other issue that factories and businesses have now is the supply chain. It’s been very compromised…. Hopefully those things will well iron themselves out, but it’s already had a dramatic effect on the price of food and inflation across the country not just in food but in all industries because the supply chain is disrupted for lots of reasons. The prices of food, especially prices of meat, especially in the kosher area, have risen.”

Another kosher certification agency in Illinois sees a totally different challenge to highlight.

Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, kashrut administrator for the CRC, the Chicago Rabbinical Council, sees other challenges. “I would say the biggest challenge today is party planners,” he told The Jewish Press. “Home cookers, Instagram bakers, the new way of buying food, is somebody advertising or they’re doing it at home or they know a guy’s uncle that makes good sushi or who knows what. The party planners have replaced caterers that have a hechsher. They feel they don’t need to have a hechsher because I’m not cooking anything, I’m just buying – but they’re buying from places that don’t have a hechsher, as well as bringing in utensils, that are questionable. It’s a big, big mess for the traditional kashrus today.”

The four major kosher supervising agencies were at the Kosherfest B2B (Business-to-Business) food expo at the Meadowlands in Secaucus, NJ, this week. There were fewer food vendors and equipment booths this year, with only 150 companies hawking their wares to prospective industry buyers. One company selling wine was even looking for someone to purchase his company.

“What I noticed is that people were very anxious to have the face-to-face meetings again,” said Menachem Lubinsky, the longtime showmaster of Kosherfest. “They [the industry leaders] missed having it last year. A lot of people came over to me and said that even though they did business via Zoom and they did phone conferences, there is nothing compared to pressing the flesh in person.

“We don’t have as many international companies because of the restrictions in various countries, including Israel, that travel to these shows. Still, 80 percent of the show was filled up. Almost 75 percent of the attendees are back this year. It says a lot that the industry has really taken off in the last couple of years, despite Covid.”

Lubinsky says that amidst the challenges, there is a sea-change happening in the industry.

“I think, for one, we have more kosher independent supermarkets all over the country and they have added significantly to the bottom line of kosher. Secondly, the manufacturers are producing much more.”

 

Nix on Fake Pork

Two products are receiving the cold shoulder from the kosher supervising agencies.

“The Impossible Burger [produced by the Calif.-based Impossible Foods], is under the OU. They asked us to certify Impossible Pork,” said the OU’s Genack. “At least at this point, we decided not to do it. It’s not so much a halachic issue. It’s simply in terms of people’s sensibilities and sensitivities about it. When I speak in shuls, I sort of take an ad hoc poll, I’d say it’s split with more people at this point thinking that we should not give the supervision to it. It says on it all-plant derived ingredients, so it would be hard to be confused about it. It’s quite clear that it’s not real pork.

“It really comes down to sensitivities of people. Just the name pork itself. It’s interesting this is not unique to the Jewish community but within halal they even have a stronger stance. They were asked to give supervision on this as well for the Muslim community and they refused.

“It’s marketing and also just a sensitivity to what other people feel,” said Genack. “We have to remember the word pork, there’s a lot of history packed into that. During the Inquisition, they used to try to test the conversion to make sure that they’re not surreptitiously continuing their Jewish faith, make them eat pork.”

Lubinsky said he wouldn’t be a customer.

“I, for one, don’t have any craving for an imitation pork. I just don’t. There are so many products on the market today that I can satiate my appetite, that I don’t have to go over the line to look for things that have been made kosher.”

The Star-K is also not certifying the product because the name is not friendly to the kosher consumer.

“We probably would not certify this even though it is kosher,” said the Star-K’s Pollak. “The problem is that pork, unlike other non-kosher foods, has such a negative connotation that the kosher consumer is not likely to accept it. I think if the company would be smart, they would call it by some other name.

The company, Impossible Foods, makes meat and dairy products from plants. The privately held company was founded in 2011 by Patrick O. Brown, M.D., Ph.D., professor emeritus of biochemistry at Stanford University and a former Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. On September 24, 2021, Impossible Pork debuted at Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Pier 17 in Manhattan. The company has essentially given up on seeking a hechsher for their product.

The other controversial product receiving a thumbs down from the kosher certifying industry is recreational cannabis, which was recently approved for sale in New York state.

Unlike cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD), an oil derived from the cannabis plant, is given a hechsher by some of the major agencies. “We certify CBD oils because they’re not addictive. It’s just the health properties of it,” said Schoemann.

Smaller kosher supervision agencies are looking at certifying recreational cannabis.

“I don’t fault the smaller kosher certifying agencies for certifying recreational marijuana,” Pollak said. “I’m assuming that they have their reasons. It could very well be that there’s a financial incentive to do it and that being a small agency, every additional certification fee that they can garner is important to them.”

The problems that surround certifying cannabis have to do with its mind-altering effects and its being a gateway to harsher drugs.

“It has to do with [ingesting] things that take you yotzim min hada’as. There is a concept that if something’s already been proven, like alcohol, we’re kvar dashu bei rabim [people already “trample over it,” so we’re not as restrictive], but cannabis doesn’t enjoy that status yet,” said Fishbane of the CRC. “Therefore, to take something that you know is taking you out of da’as and therefore you can’t do mitzvahs, you can’t daven properly.”

The possibility of marijuana leading to more harmful substances makes it a non-starter for the Star-K.

“There are so many people who have raised alarms, responsible physicians and so on,” said Star-K’s Pollak. “These physicians say marijuana has the potential to do major harm to people who get to start taking marijuana on a regular basis simply because it’s legal now and it’s so easy to procure. We don’t want to have any share in that.”

Schoemann of the KLBD said, “The same as we wouldn’t give a hechsher to e-liquids or vapes for two reasons. Number one, they’re genuinely a health hazard and addictive, leading youngsters more harmful nicotine sources. Secondly, as a Beis Din and religious authority we have a moral duty towards society. By giving a Hechsher we would affectively be endorsing such behaviour.”

Lubinsky has a slightly different take on the cannabis situation.

“I think the kosher agencies have been wrestling with that, especially since more and more, it’s being used for health and wellness and people are buying it for that purpose,” he said. “I’m saying recreational meaning health and wellness. People who buy the energy drinks and people who buy nutritional supplements, there’s a market for that and cannabis is part of it. There are foods that are just simply feel-good types of foods and the idea is to go higher and higher.”

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.
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